Volunteer Diaries
December 23, 2019

How Much is the Life of a Rhino Worth?

The answer, as I would soon find out, just based on the illegal sale of the horn, is a lot. An animal that has roamed the earth for generations, a beast that is beloved by many across the world, and a factor driving tourism for many African nations, reduced to a price, a quantity of material.

Surrounded by the beauty of the bush, this was the harsh reality I had to face as I stood there, gob-smacked, as conservationists were left with no choice but to dehorn a Rhino. I’d never thought about it before. Sure, maybe I had seen poaching on the news, and sure, I knew that Rhinos were in danger, but even as I reached out to touch the rough skin of the half-conscious, drugged Rhino, the full weight of what I was witnessing was still lost on me. That is, until the chainsaw was pulled out, and starting buzzing, and methodically whittled down the horns of a Rhino until there was virtually nothing left.

The Day of the Rhino Dehorning

The morning itself was perhaps typical of one you might experience in the bush. Waking up at an ungodly hour, hurriedly getting dressed in warm clothing, and enjoying a warm cup of freshly percolated coffee. Driving out, it felt relaxed, as we stopped periodically to enjoy the various game that inhabited the reserve. Two briefings later, and the ‘hunt’ was on! A hunt of mixed emotions. To be perfectly frank, to look at a Rhino, tied up (with drugs) and looking ‘scared’ is demoralising and depressing. It is depressing to think that the only way to protect the Rhino is to remove its one evolutionary defense mechanism. It is demoralising to think that a team of dedicated conservationists have to spend a good chunk of their time capturing and dehorning Rhinos, which, for a long time, was a ‘last resort’ measure.

Yet, as we drove back to camp, I started to think a little deeper about what I saw. The horn of a Rhino, in many cases, represents the worst of human greed and selfishness. It represents a black market trade that has destabilised communities, and in some cases, helped destabilised entire African nations. Rhino dehorning is not a story of morbid moral decay, but instead a story that perhaps there is hope that the Rhino will be allowed to keep its horn in future generations.

Photo by Sahana Thimaiah, Adrian Mowat, Scott Christensen and Aditya Srinath

Insights into Another Threatened Species

One of the more interesting portions of the trip, as I would soon find out, would be the conservation efforts to save the African Painted Wolf, more commonly referred to as the ‘Wild Dog.’ And they are beautiful. Elegant coats with unique designs, interesting social dynamics and language between members of the pack, and a ferociousness to match even the Leopard. The Painted Wolf was, as I learned, the unsung predator of the bush. And it was for that reason, their anonymity as carnivores to be learned from and celebrated, that was leading to their methodical extinction by the hands of poachers and farmers alike, through conflicting land-use and habitat loss. Like the Tasmanian Tiger, the Dodo bird, or the Western African Black Rhino before it, this animal was nearing extinction. Knowing nothing beforehand, I was blown away at the depth of information these animals held within them, and by the end, I was determined not to let the fate of extinction fall upon these animals as it had so many others.

African Wild Dog Photo by Hayden Rattray
Photo by Hayden Rattray

The experience alone of tracking the Painted Wolf, watching one being darted, and finally watching it reunite with its pack, was one that, more so than the Rhino, gave me an immediate sense of hope for the future in two ways. Firstly, it reaffirms the idea that these conservation efforts for these animals are having immediate benefits in terms of reclaiming a place in its habitat. Secondly, by spreading the message of conservation through such experiences, it allows the global community to place a renewed focus on African conservation and focusing on greater variety of species than just the Rhino.

Learning About the Plight of the Vulture

It would be wrong of me to talk about the Rhino and the Painted Wolf without touching upon the experiences we had within Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park with Vultures. It was sickening for me to learn that the Vulture, an iconic species and broadly popular within pop culture, is Critically Endangered throughout Africa. In Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park alone, certain species of Vulture, such as the White-headed Vulture, are Critically Endangered with only one or two breeding pairs left in the province, and at this point, could even be locally extinct. Therefore, it was an honour to see White-Backed Vultures flying around to various reserves and tracking the flight patterns of various Vulture species. The White-Backed Vulture was truly magnificent, and it would be a blot on history to see any Vulture species go extinct.

White-backed vulture,Gyps Africanus, in flight. Photo by Richard Steyn
White-backed Vulture in flight. Photo by Richard Steyn

There is Hope

Experiences are not just the sum of memories, they are the sum of emotion as well. To learn about the destruction of whole species, keystone species that could bring ruin to a multitude of ecological communities, was heart-breaking. It broke my heart to see a horn chopped off, to read that there were only 1 to 2 breeding pairs of White-Headed Vultures left in KwaZulu-Natal. However, in that despair, in that ruin, there is hope.

There is hope when dogs are reunited with their pack, there is hope when you see a Vulture sunning itself by the river. Conservation is not a story of despair, as the media and celebrity figures would have you believe. Conservation is a story of hope. It is the story of human evil, but vastly overshadowed by humanity banding together to minimise the destruction reaped by our ancestors and our neighbours. The one thing this experience taught me was not to feel pity, but instead, to feel hope. And I wish you would do the same.

- Written by Viv Srinath